Brain (Cerebral) Atrophy – What Does It Mean When Your Brain Shrinks?
Table of Contents
- What is brain (cerebral) atrophy?
- Does the brain actually shrink?
- Factors that can worsen the atrophy
- Symptoms of a brain atrophy
- Scientifically proven treatments for brain atrophy
Cerebral Atrophy sounds and looks scary. If you are reading this article, chances are you've probably heard about or seen a picture of a shrinking brain – and it seems scary because it's a serious condition. But do not be discouraged. Research shows that there are things we can do to prevent and even reverse this process.
Brain aging is a natural process that occurs worldwide. The WHO has recently claimed that: "Worldwide, around 50 million people have dementia, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year."
In an article we wrote about Brain Aging, we identified this condition as the leading cause of seniors' struggling with new situations, mood swings, slower reaction, and thinking ability. And in today's article, we will explore what brain atrophy is: the causes, the factors that may worsen the condition, and most importantly, how to prevent and revert neuro atrophy.
What is brain (cerebral) atrophy?
Brain atrophy is a term used to describe the loss of brain tissue that all people naturally experience as part of the aging process. This process is also known as loss of brain volume or shrinkage of the brain. And while it is a natural process, brain atrophy can be caused by numerous diseases, leading to different symptoms depending on the brain areas affected.
As a natural aging process, brain atrophy affects everyone. However, in older adults, it is common to find brain atrophy without cognitive deterioration or the complete opposite.
Year after year, everyone loses a small percentage of nerve cells, also known as neurons. These neurons form connections, called synapses, similar to the internet and how it's all connected.
Neurons communicate with each other through these connections, which act like communication pathways that can regenerate throughout life. Each time we learn something new, the synaptic transmission between neurons becomes stronger.
However, these pathways may become damaged or severed completely due to brain atrophy. Any atrophy causes the loss of cells, and that damage could either be generalized or affect a specific area of the brain.
When it is localized, it affects a limited area. The symptoms are related to functions that depend on that brain area. And when generalized, it affects the entire brain, causing multiple brain functions to fail.
What's more, neuro atrophy can progress slowly or very rapidly. The rate of progression of brain atrophy depends on the cause, which may be due to various brain diseases. Yet, this involves the appearance of other symptoms.
Does the brain actually shrink?
Unfortunately, yes. As nerve cells die, brain volume decreases. Usually, this process begins around the age of 30, and the shrinkage rate increases after 60.
There are various reasons why this occurs. We find that the human brain consumes 20% of the energy available to the rest of the body; this great energy demand has consequences, such as the deterioration of the mitochondria or more significant oxidative stresses.
Other studies on brain aging in healthy subjects point to the loss of connectivity due to natural factors. Up to 40% of that connectivity is lost due to the aging process. However, other factors, like lifestyle habits, play a huge role in brain atrophy.
Factors that can worsen brain atrophy
Many factors can worsen or accelerate brain atrophy. Disorders like depression, insomnia, or malnutrition, such as prolonged veganism, lack of healthy fats and nutrients or prolonged smoking, and low activity, have been shown to shrink the brain over the years.
Among lifestyle factors, drug abuse is one of the most significant causes. However, there are other causes beyond our reach that we cannot control, such as our genetics.
There are countless reasons why brain atrophy occurs as we age. Oxidative stress, lack of collagen, the rate at which our neurons replicate is slower (neurogenesis), lack of nutrients, a more sedentary lifestyle, retiring and halting all complex brain activities like work or study, etc.
All of these factors play a massive role in the health of the human brain. And unfortunately, we cannot fight against time. However, we can improve our diet, exercise regularly, and practice challenging brain activities, like learning a foreign language.
Genes rule our lives. While epigenetics is being widely studied and can help revert some of our genetic predispositions, we still struggle with our genes. Unfortunately, this is one of the causes of Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
While dementia causes brain atrophy, it is also a symptom. Patients with dementia have problems with memory and language. Dementia also causes poor judgment. In the later stages, dementia causes issues such as no longer understanding language or have trouble taking care of themselves.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease with an inflammatory and a degenerative component that manifests itself in cerebral atrophy, more prominent in patients with a progressive course of the disease. Furthermore, cerebral atrophy progresses relentlessly throughout the condition in untreated patients. In a recent study, MS patients who did not receive treatment showed a loss of 0.7% of annual brain volume compared with normal aging (0.1-0.3% of annual brain volume).
Studies using Voxel-Based Morphometry (a neuroimaging technique) show that the loss of cerebral gray matter, associated brain atrophy is significant in patients who suffered a stroke due to the state of the blood vessels post-stroke. It has been shown that the onset of stroke causes the brain to shrink at a higher rate than normal aging but still at a lower rate than neurodegenerative diseases.
Compression of the brain by hematoma and brain swelling due to TBI can increase pressure. A chronic subdural hematoma can appear when this occurs, producing symptoms gradually after the trauma, which cause cerebral atrophy. In addition, there is evidence that brain volume will decrease after a traumatic brain injury and that if there is a loss in consciousness, that volume loss is even more significant.
Huntington's disease is a hereditary disease that causes the breakdown of cells in the brain. People born with the defective gene start to see symptoms after their 30s or 40s. Studies show that brain atrophy due to Huntington's disease presents volume reductions in cortical and subcortical gray matter.
Similar to Alzheimer's but less common, this type of dementia-causing disease attacks portions of the brain that control emotions, behavior, and language. It's also known to lead to frontotemporal lobar degeneration and overall cerebral atrophy.
Infections such as AIDS, encephalitis, and syphilis are also known to increase the chances of neuro atrophy. However, in cases where brain atrophy stems from an infection, treating it may stop the atrophy.
Symptoms of brain atrophy
Difficulty to stand up
Loss of coordination
Partial or total paralysis
Loss of touch
Inability to focus the eyes
Difficulty speaking or trying to make sense
Stages of cognitive decline
Mild cognitive impairment to full-blown impairment
Lack of ability to reason
Loss of memory
Difficulty to communicate
Reading comprehension deterioration
A whole set of potential dangers begin to appear as the brain shrinks. Due to a lack of motor abilities, your chances of falling and injuring yourself are higher.
Due to other cognitive deterioration, patients run a higher risk of losing consciousness and exposing themselves to accidents. Physical symptoms like seizures are far more common among these patients.
Scientifically proven treatments for Brain atrophy
Control blood pressure
Studies have shown that high blood pressure and low blood pressure play a significant role in developing brain atrophy. So, controlling your blood pressure might significantly help prevent further damage.
It is no news that exercise is an excellent way to stay healthy overall. And research from the University of Scotland shows that regular exercise can prevent brain shrinkage and other signs linked to dementia. The study involved 638 people in their 70s who underwent brain scans. The results showed that those who were more physically active had less reduction in brain volume than those who did not exercise.
We are what we eat; there's no doubt of that. The good news is that certain foods may help prevent neuro atrophy. According to a recent study published in "Nutrients", fatty acids and antioxidants are incredibly beneficial for brain health.
Fruits are a great source of antioxidants. Some fruits with the highest percentage of antioxidants are berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, etc.). Other rich antioxidant fruits are cherries, grapes and mangoes, and citruses, such as oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tangerines.
As per a Nutrition Journal study, the vegetables with the highest concentration of antioxidants are: Artichoke, black olives, broccoli, chilies, and kale.
Omega-3 fatty acids:
It is also well known that so-called healthy fats are our brain's number one ally. The human brain is 60% fat, so fat-rich foods like fatty fishes like salmon, trout, and sardines are excellent. Also, plant-based foods such as almonds, nuts, avocados, and extra virgin olive oil are excellent additions to a healthy diet for your brain.
Supplements are an easy way to increase the consumption of nutrients and minerals to boost overall health.
Whether you suffer from a serious condition or are a perfectly healthy individual, it is essential that you closely monitor your brain as you get older, starting from the young age of 30.
As you now know, aging is a common cause of brain deterioration. As with any natural biological process, we cannot completely avoid it. However, we can positively influence our brain health and take the necessary precautions by living a lifestyle that supports a healthy brain today!
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